Christopher Michaelson is the David A. and Barbara Koch (pronounced “coach”—no relation to the political donor) distinguished professor of business ethics and social responsibility at the University of St. Thomas in the Opus College of Business and a fellow with the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions in the School of Law.
He teaches the foundational course in compliance programming in the Organizational Ethics & Compliance Program at St. Thomas, is on the faculty steering committee, and was a founding faculty member of the program, one of the first degree programs of its kind. He is also an adjunct professor with the New York University Stern School of Business and a part-time advisory director for PwC—a relationship he continues to maintain, keeping a foot in both the academic and the practicing world.
If Michaelson’s title were any longer, he would probably need a special, accordion-style business card just to accommodate it. But titles are not how he sees his worth in the ethics and compliance field. What distinguishes him there, and what led to his naming as one of Compliance Week’s Top Minds, is his dedication to the principle of helping business leaders make the world a better place through their business, as well as preparing the world for a gradual renegotiation of core business values as global capitalism embraces the cultural norms and ideals of all cultures, not simply Western ones.
In 1998, MIchaelson finished grad school with a degree in philosophical ethics, but knew it would be difficult to have much of an impact on the world as an academic philosopher. “Philosophers speak a different language,” Michaelson says. “They ask narrow, difficult questions.” Rather than pursue a professorship, he joined PwC as one of the first five advisors to its newly formed business ethics unit.
About Christopher Michaelson
Title: Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics & Social Responsibility, University of St. Thomas
Years of experience: 18
Areas of expertise: Education, ethics, corporate social responsibility
Quote: “A lot of students want to do something where they genuinely feel they are making the world a bit better through what they do. They are looking for a way to broaden their impact and have more systemic influence on an organization.”
In 2002, he got a call from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania with an offer to become a visiting lecturer. It amounted to a full-time opportunity to see if he liked the world of academia. He negotiated an arrangement where he could go to Wharton yet keep a foot in PwC while pursuing academia, and it’s a decision he has not regretted.
As a practitioner, Michaelson felt he could have an impact with his clients, but not always a deep or lasting one, or one in which he felt a sense of ownership. As an academic researcher, he felt he could make a deep impact but it could take a long time to see the results. “Teaching in the classroom is a happy equilibrium between the extremes,” he says. “Teaching future business people about business ethics, teaching future lawyers about compliance and ethics management … this gives me an opportunity, through my students, to have an immediate impact. Working with students for a semester, we can dig deep and inquire about issues and answer not just what should we do, but why should we do it. That’s why I love academia.”
Michaelson came to St. Thomas University because he and his wife are both Minnesota natives and, after having lived in New York for many years, decided to move back to be closer to family. This dovetailed nicely with his burgeoning academic career.
Michaelson could not have picked a better place to walk such a path. As a mission-driven institution, St. Thomas University has a deeper commitment to business ethics than most other schools, Michaelson says. “Since Enron, even pre-Enron, most business schools felt obligated, or were obligated by their accreditors to teach business ethics,” Michaelson explains. “Some universities did it before they were required to, and others made a stronger commitment. At St. Thomas University, we have a strong institutional commitment to teaching business ethics.”
It hasn’t always been easy, though. One of the challenges Michaelson has faced is the persistent notion that compliance and ethics are regarded more as value preservation instead of value creation; as a cost rather than a benefit; as something reactive rather than strategic. That attitude was far more pervasive when Michaelson began teaching at the university level 14 years ago, when he recalls how ethics classes were seen as lessons in how to not make money. “There was a time in my career where I felt I had to convince students of the relevance of their business ethics courses, but a lot of that convincing has since been done by the world, history, the business environment, and especially in that young generation of students. That previous challenge has become an opportunity. I often say to students, especially those already in the working world, ‘I hope my class will help you be the good person you are in regular life, also at work.’ A lot of them feel their identities are compromised at work; that they have to be a person who is not who they really are.”
At the same time, however, Michaelson still sees an uphill battle to get organizations to justify spending money on ethics and compliance—things sometimes seen as not creating value. It is important to learn that not everything that matters can be measured, Michaelson notes, but he is realistic: If his students cannot get their recommendations for robust ethics and compliance functions funded at the organizational level, then what good can they do? That is why he teaches his students how to frame their recommendations in terms of showing how they create value, rather than just protecting value of managing risk.
This is especially important to him because he sees the ethics and compliance profession—and the education surrounding it—at a crucial crossover point. “When I first began in this field, every compliance and ethics professional was somebody who had been with their company for a long time, had earned a reputation for integrity, and was given the job, but it had no career advancement potential. It usually went to somebody in the twilight of their career, partially as an honorary position,” Michaelson says. Today, especially in regulated industries, compliance positions are much larger and more resource-intensive. The program Michaelson is in at St. Thomas University is only two years old, a joint venture between the school of law and the Opus School of Business, developed on the belief that increasingly, students are interested in pursuing ethics and compliance from the beginning as a career path. Before, ethics and compliance might have been thought of as a kind of French Foreign Legion, populated by professionals from many different backgrounds, tasked to populate a new function without any native talent. That is no longer the case, Michaelson says, and a modern professional can’t expect to succeed in an ethics and compliance position without some kind of specialized training.
“I think the demand in the student marketplace for a program like this is partially reflective of a generational interest in doing work that people see as meaningful, rather than just as value-maximizing. There is nothing wrong with that, but a lot of students want to do something where they genuinely feel they are making the world a bit better through what they do. They are looking for a way to broaden their impact and have more systemic influence on an organization,” Michaelson says. “Now that we have created this organization with the idea that there is a professional career path for law students, business students, and students in neither program but specifically enrolled in this program, we have an obligation to help our students realize the value of their investment in getting this degree. Our job is to make sure that the job market for compliance and ethics professionals continues to grow, flourishes, and is seen with more respect, and is more meaningful, so their investment can be worth it.”
Michaelson’s eye on both the philosophical and the practical distinguishes him from both his academic and his practice counterparts. Early in his career, and academic mentor told him, “it’s okay for you to engage in the world of practice, as long as you portray your colleagues as lab rats.” Michaelson recounts the story with a laugh, but admits it is reflective of the supercilious attitude academics have to the real world outside of the ivory tower. But not only scholars turn up their nose at business people. Whenever he brings up ideas that business people don’t like, the easy, go-to answer is “well, that’s too academic.”
On a good day, he can neutralize that mutual suspicion and help colleagues build a bridge between the academic and the purely practical. On his bad days, when he gets flack from his academic colleagues for being too practice-oriented, or from his practice colleagues for being too academic, he always has the other side in which to find solace. “I would not be completely happy if I was totally in academics and I know for sure that having tasted academics, I never want to be a full-time consultant again,” Michaelson says. “But I think it can be really fulfilling to be the person who speaks both languages.”
An interesting project Michaelson is working on is a novel based on the life of his grandfather, who fought in the Chinese nationalist army during China’s communist revolution, and who faced exile afterwards The story is based off of what Michaelson knows of his grandfather, supplemented by stories his aunts and uncles told him, as well as fictional details to fill in the gaps and to reconcile different versions he heard of the same anecdote.
“The indeterminacy of the stories is kind of the point,” Michaelson explains. “There is some relevance to compliance and ethics there. How many times do people think they are telling the truth, even when they know they are not?”
Michaelson notes that his grandfather’s strong Confucian personality had a big impact on him. In Confucian teaching, there is a hierarchy of professions. At the top are the giving professions, such as service to country or to others (such as medicine or teaching). At the bottom is business, since it is about taking rather than giving and is inherently self-interested. For Michaelson, ethics fits somewhere in between, since it’s about striving to get business to change how it sees itself— to find a way to contribute to the world in spite of the fact that sometimes in business, there will be misbehavior.
This is not merely a homespun anecdote for Michaelson. It is a roadmap to the future of compliance and ethics, but also for business in general. “As we live in this global economy, and as economic power continues to rebalance in this world, Americans will have a harder and harder time imposing Western values on compliance standards. Those standards will have to be renegotiated.”
As an example, Michaelson points out the U.S. attitude toward conflicts of interest and how they play out in so-called relational societies, especially in Asia. “Conflict-of-interest provisions presume that first, we are individuals motivated by self-interest. If I have a chance to do something that would benefit my personal self-interest, the presumption of conflict-of-interest provisions is that either I will take advantage of that illicit opportunity, or even if I am strong enough to resist it, there has to be a rule against my being in some reasonable risk, or else an outsider can accuse me of being in conflict. We do not realize how culturally embedded those values are. In an Asian society, identity is not purely individualist. My identity and my family can’t be dissolved further than that because my position in life is tied to my position in my family and society, so I am not individually acting solely out of self-interest when doing business with a friend or family member. That is consistent with my family and social identity, while Western tradition looks down on that as nepotism. Or, I may not be seeking an advantage with gift giving; I am just playing out a proper role in society. The tenets I’ve seen in academia and in business is that as Asian economies become more mature and more integrated into global capitalism, they will adopt Western conflict-of-interest provisions. But it’s not so simple. It will happen to an extent, but the more powerful emerging economies become, the more room for renegotiation of norms there will be, and current standards may not be universal standards.”
Michaelson’s fiction work and his thoughts on changing expectations inform his interest in the use of films and novels in business ethics research and education. He cites increasing scientific evidence that reading good novels can improve one’s empathy, emotional intelligence, the ability to relate to other people … the soft skills that people need in the compliance & ethics profession, and in business in general. He did an informal research study with the World Economic Forum a few years ago and asked business leaders what were some of the most influential books in their personal and professional development. They were all war- and conflict-oriented … Darwin’s Origin of Species, Machiavelli’s the Prince, even books based on a misunderstanding, like The Art of War, which is really a peaceful book. Maybe, he thought, business leaders are reading the wrong books.
“One thing I’m encouraging students to think about is what the collaborative narratives of 21st Century global capitalism business activity will be. My number one candidate is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” Michaelson says. “First, it was written by a woman, and women are increasingly important actors in global capitalism. And, ultimately, this book is about a guy who neglected his stewardship over his creation, and it ran wild. We face that danger now with Big Data and privacy breaches, with climate change, industrialization, and forgetting to limit activities. Some are afraid we are going that way with genetically modified organisms. All of these are compliance-related issues in that they encapsulate the analogy of taking care of your creation. It is the job of business to create things of value, but hopefully without making the world a worse place at the same time.”
Top Minds 2016
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